I read some truly amazing romances this past year. This was the list I had the hardest time narrowing down and as such, it's longer than the other 2018 book lists. But I'm not sorry about it! Reading romance has saved my life in many ways, particularly during some very stressful seasons. How wonderful to read about interesting characters and know things will work out for them by the time the story ends. It's enough to make you believe things will work out for you too.
I wasn't as diligent about tracking content warnings as I'm trying to be now so I've included the ones I do have. If you're concerned about specific content, you're welcome to comment or email with a question and I'll do my best to answer.
There we have it: 24 books, 4 categories, all amazing.
Disclosure: Affiliate links included in this post.
This book blew me away and then some. First, I loved that Ruth is autistic and that this is #ownvoices. She was a fascinating character and I loved the insights into how her mind worked. I also loved her passion for comics and all of her nerdy characteristics. She was so fierce and it was pure joy to watch her slowly lower her guard around Evan and start to heal from her past. Second, Evan is a magical unicorn of a man and I wish I could clone him. He's the kind of man who makes meals for his neighbor and his friend and cannot help but be a nurturing caregiver. This can get him into trouble because he's not as good at taking care of himself. But that's where Ruth came in because she was able to look out for him too. The plot slowly unraveled its revelations about the characters and it was so perfectly timed. The character growth was tremendous as well. I loved how Evan was able to persistently and consistently be there for Ruth, respecting her boundaries but also biding his time to win her trust. Watching Ruth fall for him was everything.
CW: past partner violence
Brayden anchored this small town romance by having the two ex-lovers run into each other after years apart and then diving back into their shared history, starting with the day they met in high school. It has the perfect amount of nostalgia, all while leading up to what went wrong and bringing us back to the present again. Maggie and Courtney were such interesting characters. I loved seeing what they brought out in each other, how their romance could be as sweet and tender as it was passionate. They were well on their way to happily ever after when life, of course, interfered. I did not expect to have such an emotional reading experience but that plot twist sure made me cry. The fallout made sense, even in all of the heartbreak. But the thing of it is, despite the logistical issues, despite the heartache of it all, despite the reasons both women have to be wary of each other, they just make sense together. I loved watching them take another chance on their relationship. Even though I had an emotional experience, this story really made me happy. There are so many funny moments and I loved Maggie's wry perspective through it all. It's the kind of book where you close the last page with a smile on your face.
I loved how the neighborhood was portrayed. There's such a strong sense of place and community and belonging. Vanessa and Sal stay where they grew up because this is where their friends and family are and it's a vibrant place, even if it has problems. I also appreciated the juxtaposition between Sal's friends, those he had before prison and after, and those who would use him or bring him down. Sal has hard choices to make but he also has a lot of love and support in his life beyond Vanessa and this was so moving to see. The character growth was tremendous and you'd better believe the ending made me tear up.
Roan Parrish is a genius. I'm hoarding her books at this point because I don't want to run out. She creates such vivid worlds and characters. I love how affectionate her characters are with one another. They’re always hugging and clasping shoulders and such. It makes you feel even more connected to them and I really wanted to hug Caleb and Theo myself. I adored those two and was fully caught up in the angst of whether and how they could make things work. Theo is in a spotlight he never asked for, while Caleb essentially ran away from that life in order to maintain his sobriety. They both have a lot to learn from one another and the way they reach toward their dreams was so inspiring. Perfect amount of angst, capped off with a happy ending. More please.
CW: addiction, recovery, anxiety
This was a supremely delicious ride with a deft sense of humor that manages to subvert the cowboy trope. Travis and Maggie meet at a Halloween party (dressed as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf!) and don't realize they're business rivals until after sexy shenanigans have ensued. To take things up a notch: Travis figures out Maggie was his Little Red Riding Hood but doesn’t tell her he was the Big Bad Wolf. Thanks to Maggie’s best friend, they have each other’s phone number and so Little Red and her Wolf text (or sext, as it were) on the side while Travis and Maggie are getting to know each other better each day. I don’t always like situations like this. You know it’s going to end badly and it’s just a matter of when but Bloom handled this beautifully. There’s such great character growth across the story. Travis has to stop ignoring his problems. I loved watching him take care of his nephew and the way he figured out what kind of future he wanted to have. As a female landscape architect, Maggie constantly has to prove herself in a male-dominated field and I loved how the story explored this dynamic. She’s always been seen as “one of the guys” and I loved watching her bloom under Travis’s attention. This was an absolute delight from start to finish!
A Princess In Theory: How is Alyssa Cole always so amazing at building her stories?! This was so wonderful! Every bit of it. Ledi was freaking amazing. She's an epidemiology grad student doing her best to make ends meet when she starts receiving these spam emails claiming she's betrothed to the prince of Thesolo, an African nation. She had my heart from the start. I got why she was so guarded/closed off and loved watching her slowly open up and let others in. Prince Thabiso was a spoiled brat but I loved watching him wake up to what a tool he could be. His heart was mostly in the right place so I could hang with him through the rest. And I absolutely loved the way he took care of Ledi. Cue all the swooning! The character growth was great, especially how Thabiso went from spoiled prince to a nurturing, more self-aware soul. All the nerdery was fantastic too! This had humor and heart and I loved every second of it. Plus, the side characters added so much depth to the story.
Ledi's best friend Portia gets her own story in A Duke By Default (Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Ripped Bodice) and it's just as good. It hit me right in the feels. I lost track of how many times I teared up, not only for the portions that hit close to home but because of how much I adored the characters. You will marvel over Portia's redemption arc as she strives to turn over a new leaf. (Portia believing she’s not the kind of person people keep around and that she’s a disappointment to everyone = 😭.) Tavish was a perfect Scottish grump and I loved watching him become captivated by Portia.
This is Susannah Nix's best work yet. Rising Star centers around Alice the extra/PhD student and Griffin the actor. It’s a begrudging friends-to-lovers romance, in that it takes Alice a little while to warm up to Griffin. They barely know each other when Griffin asks Alice to dogsit for him while he’s on location in Atlanta and because she has to get out of her current apartment, they end up living together for a few weeks. Alice and Griffin’s relationship flowed so naturally from work acquaintances to more, even as they struggled to keep their feelings private. Griffin, because Alice is his employee and he doesn’t want her to think he’s taking advantage of her. Alice, because she’s leery of men’s intentions at first and then she has no idea where she stands with him. There was so much angsty goodness as they moved closer to one another until finally fireworks exploded. Additionally, the story explores sexual harassment and power dynamics in powerful ways. I really appreciated how Nix handled the realities of sexual harassment in academia and gave Alice agency in the situation.
Honorable Mentions: Idlewild by Jude Sierra (Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Ripped Bodice), Second Chance by Jay Northcote (Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Ripped Bodice), The Ones Who Got Away by Roni Loren (Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Ripped Bodice)
So witty and fresh! I adored Nick and Phoebe and how politics is woven in through the town election, in which the politicos want Phoebe to remarry so her husband can vote and support their cause. I love that Phoebe is not your typical HR heroine and the way the story explores poverty and class and especially how we see what politicians espouse vs. how their policies actually impact people. As an injured war hero, Nick was such a fascinating character and I enjoyed seeing him learn to own his opinions and voice his desires and needs. Nick and Phoebe together were pure magic and I was rooting for them to figure out a path forward the whole time.
This was my first time reading Jeannie Lin and I cannot handle how good it is. I need more historical romance like this! Her writing is so atmospheric and her characters really come alive. This is set in China in 759 AD during the Tang Dynasty and I learned so much about palace life and the complicated politics of that time. There were such high stakes between Ling Suyin and Li Tao and I didn't know how they would overcome them. My heart really went out to Ling Suyin and how she's been used as a pawn by everyone in her life. She was so close to being able to live out the rest of her life on her own terms, only to be taken by Li Tao. And yes, this may have saved her life but she's still beholden to someone she doesn't believe she can trust. Li Tao carries a heavy burden himself and the political machinations were fascinating, albeit worrisome. I loved watching these two face off against one another and then giving into their attraction. The way their relationship evolved was fantastic and I'm really looking forward to catching up on the first book and then reading the rest of this series.
Doctors William Blackwood and Augustus Hill could not be more of opposites. William is a quiet Black man who would prefer to organize and take on the more administrative details of doctoring, whereas Augustus is a white trans ex-Navy surgeon. When their professional interests draw them together, it's clear they're both drawn to each other personally as well. Add in concern for a trans patient Moss who's involuntarily committed at the hospital and these two decide they must break Moss out and help him find safety, while risking their own safety in the process. The characters are richly drawn and the setting is vivid. The story wades into big issues—transphobia, homophobia, racism—and handles them with deft nuance. I loved whenever they discussed medical research. Blood transfusions for William, hand washing for Augustus. They didn’t know how cutting edge they were! And of course I loved watching them fall for another and would happily read more books about their adventures.
This was just the loveliest! Clem manages the lodging house that Rowley, a new tenant, stays in. Clem is biracial, white titled father and Indian mother, and neurodiverse. He's sweet and shy but also naive and gullible. Rowley runs the taxidermy shop next door, a place I might avoid in real life but the details fascinated me and made me wonder how those methods compare to today. Rowley is also quiet and unassuming. In so many ways, these two were a good pair. Throw in a murder mystery and the right amount of intrigue and I was hooked! The secondary characters were just as well developed and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series in order to learn their stories.
CW: Murder, violence, references to past childhood abuse, homophobia, ableism, references to sexual assault, arson
Sierra Simone is the erotic theologian I never knew I always needed. She outdid herself with this story and in crafting Sean Bell’s character. He’s brash and funny and confident. Charming as hell, a total player, hot and dirty. And yet he takes such good care of the ones he loves. He’s exactly the level of complicated guy I go for. Zenny may want to become a nun but she’s no slouch in comparison to Sean. Her compassion and steadfast faith, her determination and intelligence all serve as the perfect foil for Sean. He’s attracted to her immediately but it’s the level of awe she inspires in him that had me unable to read fast enough.
Even though I trust Sierra to give me the happily ever after, I really didn’t know how she was going to pull it off. The premise is delicious but it’s the execution that catapulted this to my all-time favorite list. It’s as steamy and filthy as you’d expect it to be but Sierra layered in so many other factors that grounded the story into something so much more. Not only is Sean exploring faith as a lapsed Catholic, the Bell men face losing their matriarch who is dying of cancer. Sean fully rejects her decline, believing he can somehow be or do enough to save her. It’s a profound meditation on death and grief that rang so true to life. I really appreciated the way palliative care and hospice were factored into Mrs. Bell’s dying process and especially how the Living Will was addressed. My heart went out to Sean, Tyler, and the rest of the family as they figured out how to say goodbye and then what life would look like without her.
Lastly, we must discuss the way Sierra skillfully depicts faith and sexuality. I’m not Catholic but my extended family is and I’m sure they would disagree with the way the Church is presented here. On the other hand, I loved the way Zenny’s prioress talked about God and the advice she gave to her. I told a friend that if I'd grown up with the theology expressed in Sinner, I'd probably still go to church. The way it ended made me want to believe again. I still don't but it healed something in me at the same time. Sierra's books can do no wrong in my eyes.
CW: death of a loved one by cancer, grief, racism (which is challenged), reference to past sexual abuse by a priest, reference to past suicide
This is more of a novella than a novel and when it comes to novellas, Suleikha Snyder is an absolute master of the form. Seared was super steamy and the plot well paced. She manages to convey so much with so little, a perfect economy of words. Naya and Lachlan crackled with chemistry and heat. While this is technically a step-sibling romance, their parents didn't marry until Naya was 16 and Lachlan 20 and they subsequently divorced. Naya and Lachlan haven't even seen each other in 10 years when this story begins and it's off to the races the moment Naya sets foot in his restaurant. I could not get enough of it! It's hot, sexy, and yet still tender as they explore their relationship against the things trying to keep them apart.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Snyder's contribution to the Rogue Hearts anthology (Amazon | Barnes & Noble | The Ripped Bodice). In Her Service was absolute perfection. It actually gave me hope for our country and not a week has gone by where I haven't thought about her Vice President heroine and Secret Service agent hero. Could In Her Service be prophetic? Fingers crossed.
This book was a revelation. I’m still mulling it over months later. Not only was the prose gorgeous, the character growth was impeccable. Sean and Talia were such distinct characters, so richly drawn that I felt as if I really knew them. I loved that Talia was Jewish and how her faith played such a big role in her life and it informed her figuring out her sexuality/kink. The intersection of faith and sexuality is a fascinating one and I get so much more out of the way erotic romance explores it compared to the chaste inspirational romance I read growing up. It feels so much more vibrant and alive. Real.
Talia struggles with who she is and what she wants in a romantic relationship. Much of the book is her sorting that out, through her BDSM relationship with Sean and through her therapy session. Her therapist is awful and those sessions could be hard to read about. Her counselor was projecting onto Talia and had no understanding of how consensual a BDSM relationship is. The arc of this part of the story is strong but I so badly wanted to counter the messages Talia received because that’s not what a healthy therapeutic relationship looks like.
Then there’s Sean, that beautiful nerdy strong man. I loved everything about him, from his academic focus to the way he took care of Talia. I loved seeing them together, for not only the steamy scenes, which were incredibly hot, but how they were in those day to day moments, like when he buys her cupcakes or checks in on her. They are a good balance for one another and while there’s much they have to figure out, their happily ever after was so very satisfying. I adored this one from start to finish and can’t wait to read more from Sara Taylor Woods.
CW: cutting, depression, anxiety, references to racism, references to anti-Semitism, concerns of partner violence
This is one of those books that just crawls into your heart and soul! I wish I could experience one of Emme's shows in person because it sounded like it was totally up my alley. I loved the focus on music and band life and how complicated those dynamics can be, as well as how our histories together can change us and not always in the best of ways. Emme's conflict felt so real and my heart went out to her. At the same time, I loved watching Emme and Tom explore their kink and how confident she became as she embraced being a Domme. It was a neat bit of role reversal for the sub to be more experienced than the Domme. This was a slow burn and it was so worth it. Tom takes care of everyone else, often in co-dependent ways, and it was so good to see Emme take care of him. I just plain loved these two together. And I want to read more from Shelley Ann Clark! What a gem of a story.
CW: addiction, misogyny, industry sexism
This is the first book I've read (as far as I can remember) that really explores a polyamorous relationship and I was here for it. Hannah, Mitchell, and Ben were such wonderful characters, each fully embodied with their own desires and insecurities. Mitchell and Ben have been friends and roommates and sometimes lovers for a long time but neither has been honest with himself or each other about their feelings. Hannah's been attracted to Mitchell for a long time but doesn't know him well and is acquaintances with Ben. She doesn't think either man is interested in her, while they both definitely are. However, Mitchell is too shy to act and it takes Ben making a move for Mitchell to realize what he wants. And from there, they eventually realize they want to explore something together. This was super sexy and hot to read but there was also a lot of emotional depth. Hannah is fiercely independent and hates asking for or even accepting help, even when she should. This could be frustrating to read about, especially because accepting help would mean her business (sex toy shop!) could stay open. Ben has a photographic memory (might actually be eidetic memory) and keeps his feelings to himself because he doesn't want to be hurt. It was really moving to watch him slowly open up and realize he could have the relationship that he wants. Mitchell has a learning disorder: dyscalculia, where he mixes up numbers. It was really interesting to have a learning disability represented in a story and I'd be curious to hear how the representation holds up from someone who also has dyscalculia. He's such a talented chef and honestly a dream man but he doesn't recognize what everyone else sees in him. I loved watching him flourish! These three really had to learn how to communicate and face their fears and I loved reading about the ups and downs as they figured things out. Such a fun read!
Wanted & Wired was a revelation! It's an incredible sci-fi romance. SO MUCH YEARNING but also funny and clever. Heron is easily one of the sexiest heroes who is also part robot. (That might be too simplistic of an explanation but he's human who also had technology implanted, which ultimately saved his life.) His fingers have sense tips, which give him data but also adjust to give Mari the ultimate pleasure. Those scenes were sexy as hell! The characters' voices were so distinct, particularly Mari's voice. I loved what a badass she was but also how she was loyal and fiercely protected those she loves. There was a game-changing twist I never saw coming, which upended my whole reading experience in the best way.
The Whispers duology is an incredibly refreshing and well-executed sci-fi series and you will not regret reading it. The premise for Conspiracy reeled me in and I’m not someone who read much sci-fi to begin with, at least not prior to last year. Olivia had so much agency in Conspiracy and I could not get enough of her relationship with Galen, combative one moment and swoon-worthy yearning the next. They turned me into a puddle of mush more than a few times. Fascinating premise, spectacular writing, phenomenal character growth. And the second book is just as good! I can't wait to see what Harper does next.
This is the most fascinating shifter book I’ve ever read. The world-building is unparalleled! Instead of humans turning into wolves, we have wolves turning into humans and this nuance changes everything. Silver and Ti have so much to lose and they really are each other's only hope for survival. Nothing about this story was what I guessed or expected. I'm still reeling from some of the twists and turns. Maria Vale really and truly outdid herself.
The world-building is absolutely fascinating and I wholeheartedly adored these characters. I'm mad I haven't started this series sooner! Angela Dawe is a fantastic narrator too if you want to listen on audio.
Kit Rocha never disappoints! Ashwin was the strong protective hero of my dreams. His backstory as an emotionless genetically modified soldier was fascinating, especially because he has such a great connection with Kora, even if he didn't fully understand it. Kora is a healer and an emotional one at that. I really loved the juxtaposition of their personalities and what they needed to overcome. I'm so intrigued by how this sets things up for the series and I can't believe I haven't had a chance to read the next two books yet.